Skip to main content

Hey, You in the Headdress! Do You Know What It Means in Native American Cultures?

A column by Chelsea Vowel about what it means to wear a headdress.


I see you are confused about what constitutes cultural appropriation. I would like to provide you with resources and information on the subject so that you can better understand what our concerns are.

However, I also want you to have a brief summary of some of the more salient points so that you do not assume you are merely being called a racist, and so that I do not become frustrated with your defensive refusal to discuss the topic on those grounds.

If at all possible, I'd like you to read the statements on this bingo card. If any of those ideas have started whirling through your head, please lock them in a box while you read this article. They tend to interfere with the ability to have a respectful conversation.

Restricted Symbols

•In some cultures, some items are off-limits. Examples from Canada and the United States would be: military medals, Bachelor degrees (the actual diploma), and certain awards representing achievement in literature, music, or other fields.

•These items cannot be legitimately possessed or reproduced by just anyone, as they represent achievements earned according to a specific criteria.

•Yes, some people will mock these symbols. However in order to do this, they have to understand what the symbols represent, and then purposefully desecrate or alter them in order to make a statement. They cannot then claim to be honouring the symbol.

•Some people will pretend to have earned these symbols, but there can be serious sanctions within a culture for doing this. For example, someone claiming to have earned a medical degree (using a fake diploma) can face criminal charges, because that 'symbol' gives them access to a specialised and restricted profession.

Unrestricted Symbols/Items

•Other items are non-restricted. Flags, most clothing, food etc. Accessing these things does not mean that you have reached some special achievement, and you are generally free to use these.

•If you do not use these items to mock, denigrate or perpetuate cultural stereotypes, then you can legitimately claim to be honouring those items.


Headdresses in Native Cultures

For the most part, headdresses are restricted items. In particular, the headdress worn by most non-natives imitate those worn by various Plains nations. These headdresses are further restricted within the cultures to men who have done certain things to earn them. It is very rare for women in Plains cultures to wear these headdresses, and their ability to do so is, again, quite restricted.

So unless you are a native male from a Plains nation who has earned a headdress, or you have been given permission to wear one (sort of like being presented with an honorary degree), then you will have a very difficult time making a case for how wearing one is anything but disrespectful, now that you know these things. If you choose to be disrespectful, please do not be surprised when people are offended...regardless of why you think you are entitled to do this.

Even if you have "native friends' or are part native yourself, individual choices to "not be offended" do not trump our collective rights as a people to define our symbols.

Celebrate, Don't Appropriate

It is okay to find our stuff beautiful, because it is. It is okay to admire our culture. However I then think it is reasonable to ask that if you admire a culture, you should learn more about it. Especially when the details are so much more fascinating than say, outdated stereotypes.

You do not have to be an expert on our culture to have access to certain aspects of it. If you aren't sure if something is restricted or not, please ask someone who is from that culture. If people from within that culture tell you that what you are doing is disrespectful, dismissing their concerns because you just don't agree is not indicative of admiration.

If you really, really want to wear beaded moccasins or mukluks or buy beautiful native art, then please do! There are legitimate and unrestricted items crafted and sold by aboriginal peoples that we would be more than happy to see you own. Then all the disrespectful stereotyping and denigration of restricted symbols can be avoided, while still allowing you to be decked out in beautiful native-created fashion.

If you are an artist who just loves working with aboriginal images, then please try to ensure your work is authentic and does not incorporate restricted symbols (or perpetuate stereotypes). For example, painting a non-native woman in a Plains culture warbonnet is just as disrespectful as wearing one of these headdresses in real life. Painting a picture from an archival or modern photo of a real native person in a warbonnet, or in regalia, or in 'street' clothes is acceptable. Acknowledging from which specific nation the images you are using come from is even better. "Native American" or "Indian" are too vague.

Miyo-Wîchêtowin, Living Together in Harmony

It's okay to make mistakes. Maybe you had no idea about any of this stuff. The classiest thing you can do is admit you didn't know, and maybe even apologise if you find you were doing something disrespectful. In my opinion, a simple acknowledgement of the situation is pure gold. It diffuses tension and makes people feel that they have been heard, respected, and understood.

If you make this kind of acknowledgement on the condition that people who bring the it to your attention do it "nicely," then there's a problem. The reality is that this issue gets people very upset. It's okay to get heated about it on your end as well, and maybe bad words will fly back and forth. My hope is that once you cool down, you will understand that what is being asked of you is not unreasonable.

Remember that bingo card above? It demonstrates how not to go about the issue. You and I both know this problem is not the end of the world. But it is an obstacle on the path to mutual respect and understanding.

Thanks for listening.


Chelsea Vowel is Métis from the Plains Cree speaking community of Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. She currently lives in Montreal, Quebec. Her passions are: education, Aboriginal law, the Cree language, and roller derby. She holds a BEd, an LLB and is working on a BCL.